Will 2012 be the year American democracy dies?

Robert Reich says the trifecta of immense concentration of wealth, unlimited political contributions and secrecy about who's giving put this country up for sale

August 08, 2012|By Robert B. Reich

Who's buying our democracy? Wall Street financiers, the Koch brothers, and casino magnates Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn, among others. And they're doing much of it in secret.

It's a perfect storm -- the combination of three waves that are about to drown government as we know it.

The first is the greatest concentration of wealth in America in more than a century. The 400 richest Americans are richer than the bottom 150 million Americans put together. The trend started 30 years ago, and it's related to globalization and technological changes that have stymied wage growth for most people. It's also a product of "trickle-down economics," the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, and the steady decline in the bargaining power of organized labor.

The second is the wave of unlimited political contributions -- courtesy of Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy. They were the majority in one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 ruling which held that corporations are people under the First Amendment. Lower-court rulings have since then expanded Citizens United to mean that virtually any billionaire can contribute as much to a political campaign as he wants.

The third is complete secrecy about who's contributing how much to whom. The failure of the Internal Revenue Service to properly enforce our tax laws has given rise to political fronts posing as charitable, nonprofit "social welfare" organizations that don't have to disclose their donors. As a result, outfits like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS are taking in hundreds of millions from corporations that don't even tell their own shareholders what political payments they're making.

Separately, any one of these three would be bad enough. Put the three together, and our democracy is being sold down the drain.

With a more equitable and traditional distribution of wealth, far more Americans would have a fair chance of influencing politics. As the great jurist Louis Brandeis once said, "We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a comparative few, but we cannot have both."

Alternatively, inequality wouldn't be as much of a problem if we had strict laws limiting political spending. Or, at the very least, laws requiring that the identities of big donors be disclosed.

But we have an almost unprecedented concentration of wealth, and unlimited political spending and secrecy.

I'm not letting Democrats off the hook. Democratic candidates are still too dependent on Wall Street casino moguls and real casino magnates. (Steve Wynn has been a major contributor to Sen. Harry Reid, for example.) George Soros and a few others have poured big bucks into Democratic coffers. So have a handful of trade unions.

But make no mistake: Compared to what the GOP is doing this year, Democrats are conducting a high school bake sale. The mega-selling of American democracy is a Republican invention, and Mitt Romney and the GOP are its major beneficiaries.

And the losers aren't just Democrats. They're the American people. Our democracy is the most precious thing we have, and we're allowing it to be bought and sold like oceanfront property.

What can you do? Make a ruckus.

Demand that the Obama administration get the Internal Revenue Service to do its job and not allow political front groups to pretend they're non-political charities that don't have to disclose their donors.

Insist on legislation that forces the full disclosure of all campaign contributors. (Last month, Senate Republicans blocked the "Disclose Act," which would have gone some way toward achieving this.)

Support efforts to reverse Citizens United with an amendment to the Constitution making it clear that corporations are not people under the First Amendment.

Back legislation that would provide public financing to candidates who agree to strict limits on campaign donations -- enough to erase any advantage their opponents may get from raising large sums from a few mega-donors.

Even if you disagree with one or more of these proposals, at least fight to protect our democracy from the big-money corruption it's now prey to.

Don't fall into the seductive trap of cynicism -- assuming our democracy is hopelessly corrupt, available to the highest bidder. That kind of cynicism is what the buyers and sellers of American democracy are counting on.

If you give up on our system of government, they win everything.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the author of the newly released "Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it," a Knopf e-book original.

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